Friday, August 1, 2008

Premiership Preview--20. Stoke City

August is finally here, and with it comes the final run-in to the start of the 2008-2009 Premiership season. You all know my preview plans by now -- I'll cover all 20 teams in the next 10 days -- and it all starts today. Without further ado, let's light this candle.

20. Finishing 2nd in the Coca-Cola Championship last season was a great accomplishment for Stoke City, the second-oldest club in the Football League after Notts County. The Potters hadn't played in England's top flight for over two decades, and their last showing -- 17 points in 1984-1985 -- set a record for futility that lasted 21 years. They'll be hoping for a better run this season, but the gap between the Premiership and the Championship is larger than it ever has been and it's going to be tough sledding for Stoke.

Tony Pulis is in his second stint as manager, taking the reins again in June of '06 after already leading the club from November 2002-June 2005. He's brought in striker Dave Kitson from Premiership-relegated Reading for $11 million, a record signing, and tall Nigerian midfielder Seyi Olofinjana, who's played the last four seasons for Wolves. Thomas Sorensen joined up on a free transfer from Aston Villa, where his services were no longer required after Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan were signed, and the Danish international should overtake the incumbent, Steve Simonsen, for the starting goalkeeper position.

Pulis hasn't lost anyone of consequence; he released club captain Dominic Matteo, but Matteo played only sporadically last season and had no place in this team. With Matteo gone, right back Andy Griffin will wear the armband in his third go-around with the club.

Midfield will be Stoke's strongest area, with Olofinjana set to occupy one of the central roles. Former Liverpool player Salif Diao will play in the "Makélélé Role" just ahead of the back four and behind his fellow African. Liam Lawrence, Stoke's Player of the Year last season, will be on the right wing, with the versatile Danny Pugh opposite him on the left. Depending on the opponent, you could see five in the midfield and a lone striker, and when that's the case, playmaker Glenn Whelan will be alongside Olofinjana in the center.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-5-1):
GK: Sorensen

RB: Griffin (captain)
CB: Leon Cort
CB: Ryan Shawcross
LB: Carl Dickinson

RMF: Lawrence
DMF: Diao
CMF: Olofinjana
CMF: Whelan
LMF: Pugh

ST: Kitson

Stoke jumps right into the thick of things; after starting the season at Bolton, the Potters will play eight consecutive games and 10 of 12 in which they'll be the clear underdog. Those 10 (in order): Aston Villa, @Middlesbrough, Everton, @Liverpool, Chelsea, @Portsmouth, Tottenham, @Manchester City, Arsenal, @Manchester United. In between the City, Arsenal, and United games, Stoke will need to win at home against Sunderland and get a result at Wigan. After their match at Old Trafford, Stoke gets four winnable games, the first two of which are at the Britannia Stadium against their fellow promoted clubs from the Championship, Hull City and West Brom.

January will be an extremely difficult month for Pulis' side, as away games at Chelsea and Tottenham are sandwiched in between visits from Liverpool and Manchester City.

The last two months of the season are where Stoke is really going to have to make a run at survival, and out of the eight games they'll play in that time, 12 points is certainly realistic and anything above 15 would be a bonus. That stretch brings home dates with Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham, and Wigan, as well as manageable road games at West Brom, Fulham, and Hull City. Stoke finishes their season at the Emirates against Arsenal, so they'll want to be safely out of the relegation battle before making the trip to North London.

Bottom Line: Stoke City has very little chance to stay up. I think they'll give a better account of themselves than Derby did last season, but that tough opening stretch of games will put them in a hole that could very well be impossible to climb out of. There isn't as much talent in this team as there is commitment and work rate, which could be beneficial over the long 38-game schedule, but for Stoke to have a prayer, Kitson will need to take the team by the horns and score 10-12 goals.

Check back this afternoon for my second preview of the day, #19.

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